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10 classical film compositions in Manna Dey's voice: Birth anniversary special

In the midst of the Rafi-Kishore contest, Manna Dey's voice stood out for its classical lilt. Born on 1 May 1919, the singer went on to etch his name in the annals of film music with his ability to handle songs of every nature. On his 98th birth anniversary, we look at some of his memorable songs based on classical ragas.

Shriram Iyengar

Born Prabodh Chandra Dey in a family of musical pedigree, it was natural that 'Manna' Dey would turn to music. His uncle, the blind actor-singer Krishna Chandra Dey, popularly known simply as KC Dey, had already set the benchmark as a leading name in music composition in Bengali and Hindi cinema.

Young Manna's classical training began under his uncle and continued under Ustad Dabir Khan. It was this training in classical music that set Manna Dey apart in an era where giants like Mohammed Rafi, Kishore Kumar and Mukesh held centre stage. In addition, Dey's genial nature and friendship with singers, Kishore Kumar in particular, brought him fans even among his peers.

On his 98th birth anniversary, we review 10 compositions underlined by their classical form that are elevated by the voice of Manna Dey.

1. 'Laaga Chunari Mein Daag' – Dil Hi To Hai (1963)

One of the most famous songs to highlight Manna Dey's fantastic classical ouevre, 'Laaga Chunari Mein Daag' was composed in raga Bhairavi in taal Keherwa. Under Roshan's baton, Manna Dey's tremulous voice holds the raga with a delightful touch. For once, Raj Kapoor finds it difficult to keep up with the voice of the singer who stars through the song.

2. 'Kaun Aaya Mere Mann Ke Dware' – Dekh Kabira Roya (1957)

Madan Mohan's soft corner for the classical ouevre is well known. For Amiya Chakrabarty's farcical comedy Dekh Kabira Roya (1957), he delivered a wonderful song composed in the queen of ragas, Rageshwari, sung by Manna Dey. A light raga, Rageshwari's romantic characteristics fit in perfectly with Manna Dey's mellifluous voice.

3. 'Lapak Jhapak Tu Aa Re Badarwa' – Boot Polish (1954) 

If ever a Shankar-Jaikishan song used the full extent of Manna Dey's musical ability, it was this wonderful composition from Boot Polish (1954). Composed in the style of a raagmala (multiple ragas strung together) from the Kanada and Malhar families, the song combines the stoic tradition of classical music to evoke a hilarious result. In some way, Manna Dey was a perfect fit (seeing his later humorous work in Padosan, 1968). The singer combined the elements of rasa (style) and hasya (humour) with elan.

4. 'Sur Na Saje Kya Gaaoon Mai' – Basant Bahar (1956)

In a film that rested on the ability of Manna Dey's vocals, Shankar-Jaikishan gave the singer another wonderful composition in raga Pilu. A light-hearted raga that evokes peace, Shankar-Jaikishan used it, and Dey's evocative voice, to bring out the emotion of helplessness.

5. 'Jhanak Jhanak Tori Baaje Payaliya' – Mere Huzoor (1968)

The combination continued with this wonderfully hedonistic composition from the Raaj Kumar-starrer Mere Huzoor. Composed in raga Durbari, a truly royal raga, the song is featured on the very stylish actor who defined royalty in Hindi cinema.

6. 'Chham Chham Baaje Re Paayaliya' – Jaane Anjaane (1971)

Again in raga Durbari, this composition was also put together by Shankar-Jaikishan. Shammi Kapoor puts on the act of a veteran singer trying to woo a young woman, but Manna Dey's voice continues to enthral all the same.

7. 'Tu Pyar Ka Sagar Hai' – Seema (1955)

Of all the songs based on the late-night raga Durbari, this composition by Shankar Jaikishan captures it the best. Picturized on the regal Balraj Sahni, the song is the perfect example of why Mohammed Rafi and Kishore Kumar considered Manna Dey to be their superior.

8. 'Udd Ja Bhanwar Maya Kamal Ka' – Rani Rupmati (1959)

The song is a veritable treat for aficionados of classical-based film music with Lata Mangeshkar joining Manna Dey. The first part of the song, sung by Dey, is in raga Durbari while Mangeshkar follows it up in Sarang, a raga for the rainy season. This composition provides a magical listening experience.

9. 'Pucho Na Kaise Maine Rayn Bitai' – Meri Surat Teri Ankhen (1963)

One of SD Burman's finest compositions, this song, again in raga Durbari, taps into the singer Manna Dey's skill. Astoundingly, the raga is used by Burman to create a sense of pathos, which elevates it.

10. 'Aayo Kahan Se Ghanshyam' – Buddha Mil Gaya (1971)

The apple did not fall very far from the tree in the Burman family. The only difference is that here RD Burman uses the late-evening raga Khamaj, a particular favourite of his, to build on the sense of romance that wafts through the composition. Manna Dey's masterful handling of the song does the rest.